Jacob Zuma's giant arms deal flip-flop

Inside Politics on what the President said on the matter in 2012, and 2004

A Zuma flip flop: On the arms deal in 2004 and 2012

On 15 September 2011, after more than a decade of obfuscation and denial, President Zuma announced that he would appoint a commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of wrongdoing in the Strategic Defence Procurement Packages, more infamously known as "the arms deal".

In making the announcement, the President was curt and offered little in the way of a substantive explanation for his decision, saying only that "closure on this subject will be in the public interest".

The President was a little more forthcoming when the matter was raised in the National Assembly more recently, during President's Question Time in March, although, again, he was clearly trying to stick to a rather limited script, saying in his inimitable mangled fashion, "the fact of the matter is that this is a commission of the country that must get the truth."

Pushed a little harder - and in response to the ANC ‘sweetheart question', "does government plan any interim steps to make sure that we prevent future problems that may occur with the procurement of arms" - he would say the following:

"The arms deal in this country has been an experience that we must all learn from. In future, if we were to undertake such a task, we would certainly look at what happened in our experience and take the correct steps in order to eliminate some of the things that might have caused problems. There's no doubt about it."

That would seem a pretty self explanatory statement: an admission of a problem and, through a commission of inquiry, a chance to identify mistakes and learn from them.

How the worm turns.

Turn the clock back eight years or so, to 2004, and then-Deputy President Jacob Zuma also stood before the National Assembly, this time to answer questions in his capacity as President Thabo Mbeki's second in command.

Now, compare and contrast.

He was asked the following question through the Speaker by Mr LM Green MP, a member of the opposition at the time:

"Madam Speaker, with reference to the 10-year review and given Government's experience of 10 years, if you were to be given the opportunity to do the arms deal all over again, would you have made the same choices, given the damage this has done to Government and to South Africa as a whole?"

Sound familiar? Essentially exactly the same question asked of the President in March this year. The question might have been the same, the Deputy President's answer, however, was not:

"Madam Speaker, that is another imagined issue. It's just a figment of the imagination, because Hon Members have not paid attention to what benefits have been brought by the arms deal in terms of the industry in this country. Again, they would be imagining it. I know that they have been chasing to find something. Up to this day, nobody has found anything. They have been chasing it in the sea, in the sky and everywhere. Nothing has been found. What is the problem? I don't think they know what the problem is. They are just imagining a problem. Sorry Sir, you'll find nothing at the end. [Applause]" [HANSARD; 25 February 2004; Pages 118/9]

I know what you are thinking: ‘Is this the same person speaking?'

Absolutely it is. Jacob Zuma.

In 2004 - any suggestion there was a problem with the arms deal was a "figment of the imagination", the subject of a wild goose chase, and mere speculation about an undertaking that not only brought "benefits" to industry but that any interrogation of would "find nothing at the end".

Skip forward to 2012 and we have a commission of inquiry, established for the country to "get the truth" and to identify the "correct steps in order to eliminate some of the things that might have caused problems", so that we might all "learn from the experience".

As far as political flip flops go - this is a biggy.

Certainly I think it is worth asking the President a parliamentary question about how he reconciles his two contrasting statements, both made before Parliament.

One final note on Zuma's 2004 claim that people were ignoring the benefits "brought by the arms deal in terms of the industry in this country", well that too has recently been proven nonsense.

I won't set it all out here. All you need to do is read this statement from the DA's shadow minister of defence, David Maynier MP and, importantly, the table it contains. To cut a long story short, and to quote from the statement: "The arms deal was supposed to generate roughly R110 billion in investments and 65 000 jobs. However, the figures revealed today show that the arms deal actually generated roughly R6 billion in actual investment and 13 690 new jobs."

The Cape Times ran the story as its front page banner story lead this week: ‘Arms deal offset ripoff'

But perhaps the real questions now are these: if Zuma's 2004 answer was a load of nonsense, why should we believe his bona fides in 2012? And, is the President's newfound desire to seek out "the truth" nothing more than a euphemism for some vague interrogation of the facts that ostensibly cares about getting to the bottom of it all, but in reality does the bare minimum and ends up making a series of generic meaningless recommendations about how government's procurement regulations should be better controlled?

You be the judge.

This article first appeared on the Inside Politics website. The site can also be followed on Twitter here.

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